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The Author Speaks

Interview With Harriet A. Washington on 'Deadly Monopolies'

The corporate takeover of our medical future

Are U.S. patents on drugs a detriment to your health?

A new book, Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself — and the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, says yes. In an unflinching assault on the pharmaceutical establishment, author Harriet A. Washington argues that the U.S. patent process often impedes medical advances by preventing the sharing of information, emphasizing profits over public health, and producing expensive new tests more often than new cures. Particularly egregious, she writes, is the counterintuitive ability that corporations now have, under laws that are being contested in the courts, to patent genes, tissues and other biological products.

See also: Excerpt from Deadly Monopolies.

Medical Aparthied book

'Deadly Monopolies' argues that pharmaceutical companies value patents, profits more than public health. — Photo by Jan Stromme/Getty Images

While U.S. taxpayers fund much medical research, they don't get a fair return on their investment, according to Washington. Collaborations between universities and pharmaceutical companies "have been distorted by the corporate agenda," she writes, resulting in scientifically dubious research, academic turf wars, soaring drug prices and the suppression of potentially useful medicines in favor of those with more lucrative markets. She also condemns breaches of informed consent in research and what she calls "biocolonialism," the exploitation of people and substances from developing countries.

Washington is the founding editor of the Harvard Journal of Minority Public Health and has edited news for USA Today. In 2007, her award-winning Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present explored the checkered relationship between scientific progress and racial discrimination, detailing abuses that included the infamous Tuskegee syphilis trials and experimental gynecological surgery on black women.

When Washington realized that patents, not patients, were shaping the focus of medical research, she decided to investigate. In an interview with the AARP Bulletin, Washington talked about Deadly Monopolies.

Q. What's wrong with the U.S. patent system?

A. Of the many ills caused by the widespread adoption of the patent, probably the worst is that, since 1980, universities and corporations have been allowed to grow too close. The Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities to sell corporations patents on molecules that have been discovered with our tax dollars. Corporations then undertake to mine the maximum dollar amount from us. Basically, we're paying twice. And it's primarily older people who are affected by the astronomical and unwarranted costs of medication.

Q. So this is largely a financial issue?

A. It's not just financial. It's the fact that universities are now satellites of corporations, focused on money, and no longer focused on good patient care.

Next: What about the high costs of developing new drugs? >>

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